Blog: Staff Reflections
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June 5, 2019
Last week, Harvard Law School graduated 801 members of the Class of 2019. Of these new JDs, LLMs, and SJDs, many were dedicated members of the International Human Rights Clinic, student leaders in HLS Advocates for Human Rights, and Human Rights Program summer and post-graduate fellows.
On the afternoon of May 30, 2019, we held a party to celebrate the new graduates and welcome their families and friends into our space. Below are a selection of photos from that celebration. Congrats to these new lawyers and those who supported them throughout their law school careers!
May 28, 2019
By Susan Farbstein
As graduation approaches, students often ask us, “Am I ready?” As in, “Am I ready to go out into the world and be a real human rights practitioner?”
Yes, you are ready. Look at what you have accomplished this year:
You built momentum for a preemptive ban on killer robots through publications, advocacy, and legal analysis. In collaboration with Human Rights Watch, you published a major report examining the legal and moral problems with these weapons. You participated in the global meeting of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, helping to shape the Campaign’s legal positions on the elements of a new treaty, and advocated at three UN disarmament conferences.
You traveled to Guinea to examine the human rights implications of the country’s booming bauxite industry, the raw material needed to make aluminum. Working alongside Guinean NGOs, you conducted fieldwork and interviews in communities that have lost land to mining, as well as in areas facing the threat of mining in the near future. Your work will assist Guinean NGOs to convey concerns about the impacts of mining on land and the local environment to the Guinean government and mining companies.
You developed materials for, and delivered trainings to, arms expert officials from twelve Central and Eastern European governments, so they can better assess arms export requests to account for the risk that arms could be used to commit gender based violence or other human rights violations.
You drafted a shadow report to the CEDAW Committee highlighting gaps in legal protections for Muslim women in Mauritius and the resulting injustices that these women face, in collaboration with Musawah and Mauritian advocates. You helped brief CEDAW Committee experts and engaged closely in the debate on proposed legal reforms, leading the CEDAW Committee to incorporate these proposals in its recommendations to the State of Mauritius, which local advocates are using as one more advocacy tool to push for reform of the national civil code.
You designed and ran workshops for multi-ethnic, multi-faith stakeholders in Yangon, aimed at de-escalating communal tensions and developing messages for peace and religious tolerance in Myanmar. You developed a facilitation guide that will be shared with local partners and used to train future facilitators so that these workshops will continue in the coming years.
You helped finalize and launch two reports on freedom of movement and business documentation in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, in partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council. Thanks to the outstanding coalition-building of work of local staff at the NRC, measures to implement the reports’ recommendations are now a reality.
You interviewed medical doctors, scientists, and veterans about the impacts of burn pits used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Working closely with colleagues from Amnesty International, you designed a project investigating how these burn pits caused serious health problems for veterans, local and foreign contractors, and Iraqi and Afghan civilians living nearby.
You researched and published a report for the Women’s League of Burma which details procedural and substantive recommendations for the proposed draft Protection and Prevention of Violence Against Women Law. The report has been widely disseminated among key stakeholders in Myanmar.
You collaborated with Helem and The Legal Agenda in Lebanon to support their ongoing efforts on behalf of persons targeted by criminal prosecutions because of their sexual activities or orientation, developing a model legal defense for use in strategic litigation.
You produced briefing papers and government submissions promoting the treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, working closely with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. You played a leading role in interpreting and advocating for the treaty’s innovative positive obligations to assist survivors and remediate environmental impacts.
You continued to push for justice on behalf of the victims of Bolivia’s Black October, working relentlessly with attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Akin Gump as the Mamani case went on appeal before the Eleventh Circuit.
You helped convene a high-level meeting at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Ferencz International Justice Initiative around international accountability for atrocity crimes in Myanmar. The meeting brought together international human rights organizations, policy makers, international criminal law experts, human rights defenders, and activists from Myanmar to strategize and coordinate about accountability efforts.
You engaged with and interviewed global experts on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender and on the creation of a new treaty for crimes against humanity.
You learned from a superstar roster of visiting clinicians—Thomas Becker JD ’08, who supervised a team investigating femicide in Bolivia; Amelia Evans LLM ’11, a co-founder of MSI Integrity, who worked with students to re-conceptualize industry and government in an era of extreme poverty; Nicolette Waldman JD ’13, previously the Iraq and Syria researcher for Amnesty International, who led trainings on field research in armed conflict; and Jim Wormington, an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, who brought perspective on how to integrate locally-driven, participatory work into advocacy at large international human rights organizations.
As you leave the Law School and launch your careers, your success may depend upon your ability to think analytically, to write clearly, and to speak persuasively—but equally it will depend upon your capacity for compassion, empathy, and generosity; your ability to draw strength from friends and colleagues; your willingness to connect and collaborate across difference; and your resilience and optimism in the face of serious challenges.
We know you are ready for whatever comes your way because we have watched with pride as you have practiced these habits together, through your clinical projects. You have worked tirelessly and passionately, asking all the right questions and making space for both reflection and action. You have inspired us with your creativity and intelligence, and motivated us to improve ourselves and our Clinic.
We celebrate with each of you, and look forward to seeing the difference you will continue to make in the world. Congratulations to the Class of 2019!
March 29, 2019
Posted by Thomas Becker JD'08, Julia Wenck JD'20, and Fabiola Alvelais JD'20
For women, Bolivia is a land of paradoxes. The Bolivian government has enacted some of the world’s most progressive legislation to advance women’s rights. It was one of the first countries to criminalize femicide − the killing of women because they are women – and maintains strict protocols to combat gender violence. Yet despite these efforts, violence against women remains a pervasive problem. Bolivia’s femicide rate is the second highest in South America and one of the highest in the world.
In April 2018, Mujeres Creando, a Bolivian feminist collective, asked the International Human Rights Clinic to examine femicide in Bolivia. Throughout this academic year, clinical students Fabiola Alvelais JD ’20, Isabel Pitaro JD ’20, and Julia Wenck JD ’20 have worked on this issue under the supervision of Clinical Instructor Thomas Becker JD ’08, conducting extensive desk research and traveling to Bolivia to interview families of femicide victims, activists, and government officials involved in the investigation and adjudication of femicide cases.
Last Friday, the Clinic released its report, “ ‘No Justice for Me’: Femicide and Impunity in Bolivia.” Becker and Alvelais presented the report at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz. Family members of femicide victims, academics, and the former Human Rights Ombudsman of Bolivia (and current Chancellor of the University) participated in the presentation before an overflow crowd of roughly one thousand people.
“No Justice for Me” identifies three key areas that have hindered the government’s efforts to prevent femicide and hold perpetrators accountable: (1) investigative barriers, (2) judicial barriers, and (3) institutional discrimination. The report calls on actors in the Bolivian government and civil society to address these obstacles, adhere to the country’s own progressive legislation on femicide, and work together to address the pervasiveness of femicide and impunity in the country.
Helen Alvarez, whose daughter Andrea Aramayo was killed by her boyfriend in 2015, was interviewed for the report and remains concerned about the prevalence of femicide. “All women can be victims of femicide in Bolivia,” she noted. “Unfortunately, impunity sends a signal to men that they can get away with killing women.”
Though Alvarez recognizes that preventing femicide and holding perpetrators accountable will continue to be difficult, she is hopeful that the Clinic’s report can be a powerful tool in this struggle and ultimately bring her daughter’s case one step closer to justice.
The clinical team shared its report with the public, conducting dozens of radio, print, and television interviews. “I was genuinely moved by the widespread interest in battling femicide in Bolivia,” Alvelais reflected.
Becker and Alvelais also met with high level members of the Bolivian government, including the President of the Senate, the Vice-President of Congress, the President of the Justice Commission of Congress, and the Director General of the Plurinational Service for Women and Depatriarchalization, to discuss the report.
To Becker, these meetings signaled a sincere effort to confront the problem of femicide. “We had a unique opportunity to sit down with members of the government, who showed a genuine interest in collaborating to eradicate femicide in the country,” he explained. “We are optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful change.”
March 13, 2019
By Susan Farbstein
We’re thrilled to share this happy news: in honor of International Women’s Day 2019, the Clinic’s very own Yee Htun has been selected by the Harvard Women’s Law Association as a “Women Inspiring Change.” To say this honor is well deserved would be an understatement.
Since joining the Clinic in 2016, Yee has guided teams of students as they engage with some of the gravest and most pressing human rights issues facing her native Myanmar: ending violence against women and girls, decriminalizing sodomy laws and enshrining LGBTQI rights, repealing or revising laws that encroach on freedom of expression, documenting hate speech and designing strategies to promote tolerance, spearheading coordination between local and international organizations seeking accountability for atrocities, and improving land rights for the rural poor.
Yee’s personal story is also inspiring. Yee fled Myanmar as a young child in the late 1980s, following the military junta’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. After five years in a Thai refugee camp with her mother and sisters, the family emigrated to Canada as government-sponsored refugees. Yee would go on to earn a J.D. specialized in international law, to be selected by the Nobel Women’s Initiative to lead the first-ever international campaign to stop rape and sexual violence in conflict, and to serve as the inaugural director of the Myanmar Program at Justice Trust.
But Yee’s dazzling resume, strategic judgment, and legal accomplishments pale in comparison to who she is as a person. She earns your respect and admiration without an ounce of ego. Students are in awe of Yee without being intimidated by her. She’s a hug and a shot of adrenaline, all rolled into one.
My co-director, Tyler Giannini, echoes this sentiment: “There are people who just naturally connect with others and inspire them to action—Yee is one of them. She has a tremendous ability to bring people together, which is so critical in a place like Myanmar where the military has tried to divide people for so long. She leads with her energy, which is contagious. And she leads with her commitment to justice, which is unwavering.”
I have watched, again and again, as clinical teams working with Yee are transformed by the experience—discovering not just their passion for human rights but also the confidence to act, speak, and lead in ways that they might never have imagined without her support and mentorship.
So it comes as no surprise that Yee’s students nominated her for this recognition, singling out her “courage, empathy, and tenacity” as particularly inspiring. Describing a recent trip to Myanmar, the students emphasized her incomparable “optimism and relentless advocacy” as she balanced strategizing with local partners, drafting human rights reports, and leading workshops, all while mentoring and training them.
I first met Yee at a staff meeting when I returned from a semester of leave and was immediately drawn in by her confidence, sincerity, and good humor. As she discussed the work that she and her students had undertaken that term, I was overwhelmed by how much she had accomplished, and energized by her warmth and enthusiasm. I still feel that way every time we speak—impressed, inspired, and invigorated.
Yee, thank you for giving so much of yourself to your students and your work. Thank you for being not only a generous colleague, but also a friend and a true role model. Thank you for motivating us all to rise to your level.
March 4, 2019
Advice for Prospective Post-Graduate Fellows From IHRC Senior Clinical Fellow Nicolette Waldman JD’13
International Human Rights Clinic Senior Clinical Fellow Nicolette Waldman JD’13 recently shared some advice for prospective post-graduate fellows, including tips for preparing your application and lessons learned for how to make the most of your year abroad. As a Satter Fellow in Human Rights in 2013-2014, Nicolette worked as a field researcher with Center for Civilians in Conflict in Somalia, the Philippines, and Syria, focusing on civilian experiences in armed conflict. In the video below, Nicolette also traces her career trajectory back to this fellowship, as it gave her the field experience and independence required for her later work with Amnesty International and others.
For more on how to apply to post, visit our fellowships page. For the 2019-2020 cycle, applications for the Henigson and Satter Fellowships will only be accepted online (through one portal). Applications are due March 15, 2019 and prospective applicants should meet with an advisor before applying.
January 30, 2019
On Jan. 11-12, dozens of experts convened at Harvard Law School to provide commentary on draft articles for a future convention on the prevention and punishment of crimes against humanity. In a post for the Harvard International Law Journal blog, Gerald Neuman, HRP Co-Director and J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, explained the importance of establishing more clarity on the definition of “crimes against humanity” following the Rome Statute.
“A key issue in establishing state obligations to prosecute international crimes involves the choice of a definition that is appropriate to the obligations that are being imposed,” Neuman says. “The notion of ‘crimes against humanity’ has a long history, but its definition has evolved over the years. The definition negotiated for the Rome Statute, which created the ICC—an international tribunal with a limited capacity to prosecute and adjudicate—may not provide the right definition for an obligatory system of consistent national prosecution.”
Establishing a convention on crimes against humanity would give clarity to states’ obligations to enforce the prohibition against crimes against humanity, among other benefits. Read the full post on the International Law Journal website.
The Crimes Against Humanity workshop was organized by the Human Rights Program and led by Professor Neuman and Sean Murphy, Manatt/Ahn Professor of International Law at The George Washington University School of Law and Special Rapporteur for Crimes Against Humanity at the International Law Commission.
Professor Murphy will visit the Human Rights Program on April 4th for a public talk about the draft articles. Stay tuned to our events page for more.
December 20, 2018
We are pleased to present HRP’s 2017-2018 Annual Report. The report showcases the global reach and impact of the Human Rights Program in its 34th year, featuring work on populism, armed conflict, and accountability litigation. It spotlights fieldwork undertaken by students and alumni, and details pedagogical innovations and new research.
We thank all of the students, partners, and alumni who made the year so strong.
Click below to open the Annual Report as a flipbook or download the PDF.
December 10, 2018
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a groundbreaking document that established the modern foundation of today’s human rights movement. As we reflect on the movement’s achievements over the last seven decades, we can see the lasting impact of the declaration across laws, theory, and practice, including here at Harvard Law School through the Human Rights Program. Our Program, which is entering its 35th year, commemorates and celebrates the Universal Declaration, and now more than ever, re-affirms its ongoing importance to equality and justice for all people.
November 13, 2018
Posted by Thomas Becker
On October 12th, students from the International Human Rights Clinic arrived at the Villa Ingenio Cemetery on the outskirts of El Alto, Bolivia to celebrate the lives of those killed in Bolivia’s “Black October.” Despite the somberness of the drizzly afternoon, the cemetery was adorned with the bright colors of the family members’ aguayos (blankets) and polleras (traditional billowy skirts worn by Bolivia’s Aymara women). Today was a special occasion.
Téofilo Baltazar was one of the family members present at the cemetery. Fifteen years ago to the day, Bolivian soldiers shot and killed his pregnant wife Teodosia while she was praying inside her sister’s home. As Téofilo placed flowers on his wife’s tomb, he stated, “Hasta el último momento lucharé por la justicia.” (“Until the last moment, I will fight for justice.”)
Téofilo, like so many relatives of the roughly 500 casualties during Black October, is Aymara. Historically, the country’s indigenous people have been excluded from justice, but Téofilo and his friends were determined to change this.
In 2007, nine Aymara Bolivians launched a landmark lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Bolivia’s ex-President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and ex-Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, who fled to the United States after Black October and have lived here ever since. The case sought to hold both men responsible for the role they played planning and organizing the mass killings that took their family members.
After years of legal obstacles, the lawsuit went to trial in March of this year, marking the first time ever a former of head state was forced to directly face his accusers in a U.S. courtroom. The victims’ family members made history when, after a three-week trial and a week of deliberations, the ten-person jury unanimously held Goni and Sánchez Berzaín liable for the killings and awarded the plaintiffs $10 million. This was the first human rights verdict in the United States against a living head of state.
Unfortunately, in May, a judge overturned the historic jury decision. The judge upheld the defendants’ Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, which argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict. This decision forced the families back to court.
Last month, as Bolivians celebrated the lives of those killed in Black October, the plaintiffs submitted an appellate brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit arguing that the district court applied the wrong legal standard for extrajudicial killings and the jury verdict should be reinstated. Additionally, current and former U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, retired U.S. military commanders, and law of war scholars submitted amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs. Early next year, the Defendants will file their opposition brief and Plaintiffs will file their reply; oral argument is expected in spring 2019.
Though the struggle has been long, the families remain steadfast in their fight for justice. It is the memories of their loves ones that keep them going. At the cemetery, Téofilo shared with the Clinic’s students the importance of their victory and its significance for survivors throughout the world. “The jury is the voice of the American people, and the people have spoken. No court can change that. No court can change the message it sends to the world,” he told the students, adding: “But the struggle continues.”
The Clinic and co-counsel from Center for Constitutional Rights, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, and Schonbrun, De Simone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP have represented the plaintiffs from the outset in the case. Clinical students Luna Borges Pereira Santos LLM ’19 and Kevin Patumwat JD ’19 traveled with clinical instructor Thomas Becker JD ’08 to Bolivia in October to commemorate 15 years since Black October.
October 26, 2018
We are sad to share the news that James Tamboer, one of the clinic’s clients in the apartheid litigation, passed away this week. Here, several of the attorneys who worked with James on the case, reflect on his life and this loss.
From Judith Chomsky:
James Tamboer critically set the stage for my understanding of the workers’ struggle against apartheid. Like others who came forward in the struggle against apartheid, his courage and steadfast commitment inspired both his comrades and those of us who came to know him working on the apartheid case in U.S. courts. Meeting and learning from James has given meaning to our work and pride in our association with him.
From Susan Farbstein:
James Tamboer died this week, and I don’t have words to adequately describe the loss. How do I explain my love and respect for a man who started out as a client but became a friend, an inspiration, and the source of so much wisdom and kindness. How do I describe my grief that another member of this generation of South Africans—a generation that struggled and fought and persevered and survived—has died, and that with his death we lose another piece of history and another connection to that past.
Representing James was one of the greatest honors of my life. For nearly a decade, we worked together on a case which sought to hold multi-national corporations accountable for their role in supporting and assisting the apartheid government to commit gross human rights violations. James, who was born in 1959, worked at the General Motors plant in Port Elizabeth from 1977 until 1986. As he said, “I started as a laborer and ended as a laborer.” He worked the trim line, fitting together truck parts, including chassis for military vehicles.
Before joining GM James had been politically active in the student movement, although he had never been arrested. He continued his organizing efforts with the union at GM, first as a shop steward and later as a senior shop steward. James worked not only for pay increases but also to break down racial barriers, such as separate toilets and canteens, within the plant.
He paid heavily for this involvement. He recalled 1982 being one of the worst years for him, a year in which he was arrested on a regular basis—including being taken from the GM plant—because he was a vocal and visible union leader. Security branch personnel often came into the plant, and to his mother’s home, to question James about plans for strikes or other political activities.
During intense union negotiations that year, James was detained for three weeks at St. Alban’s, a notorious prison facility where hundreds were often held without charge and subjected to police abuse. He was tortured. He described being beaten over a bench and waterboarded as the security police attempted to extract information from him about the union’s plans.
James was held again for several months in 1985-86, swept up following the government’s declaration of a state of emergency. The security forces, interrogating James about his role organizing a major strike at GM, stomped on his legs and chest. They bashed his head into the walls so forcefully that he would suffer from memory loss and epilepsy for the rest of his life.
But James was so much more than an activist and survivor. He was a husband, a father, and a pastor. He hesitated before joining the apartheid litigation as a plaintiff. He was concerned that if his children knew more about the abuse that he had suffered, they might hate the white people who had mistreated him. And he had spent his life working against hatred, and for equality and reconciliation.
Ultimately he joined the case because he wanted stories like his to be heard and because he hoped for some measure of justice and accountability, or at least acknowledgement, by GM and the other corporations. He was clear-eyed about the immense legal hurdles that we would face, but he believed in the importance of the case.
When I think of James now, my strongest memories are of him laughing—deep and loud and heartily, with his whole body—and of the way that he would lean in close, look you right in the eye, and wag his finger a bit when making an important point. I remember speaking with him after we had suffered a major setback in the case. I was apologetic and also, I’m sure, quite upset. As was his way, James offered reassurance and perspective: “We always knew this would be hard. And we have suffered so much worse.” Of course.
James, I will miss you tremendously. I will be forever grateful for the privilege of working with you and learning from you. And I will honor your memory, in my own small way, by carrying your wisdom and passion for justice with me, and by sharing it with others.
From Tyler Giannini:
When Diana Tamboer emailed me on Monday that her husband, James, had passed that morning, I was physically shaken. Sitting with it, I went to a moment etched in my mind forever; I can see James’ face – it was a conversation that he and I had at a fast-food restaurant near his house. We settled in a corner booth away from others. We sat across from each other, the Formica table top between us, and we talked. We had spoken before about his experiences – the torture at the hands of the Special Branch, the struggles to fight against apartheid. But this conversation was about whether he would be a plaintiff and a class representative in the apartheid litigation pending in New York.
I explained how much of a long shot the litigation was going to be; how many years it would take; how hard it would be; how he would have to talk about experiences that are hard to relive.
He was unphased. James simply said that he lived under apartheid and he knew all too well about the law, about the way legal systems do not lead to justice. He had no illusions about where this might go, and yet he was fully on board for the years of struggle that were ahead.
And then he said to me he wanted to do this because he had never told his children what had happened to him. He wanted them to know – not just so that they would know, but because he wanted to break the cycle of violence and hatred that defined apartheid.
No more needs to be said about James. I will miss him. And I will forever remember him and his strength, his wisdom, and his humanity.
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